Photo by Associated Press.
Originally Published: March 3, 2018 9:49 p.m.
MEXICO CITY — Shubhankar Sharma stayed up in the middle of the night in India to watch golf at the highest level, usually the majors, and the best players became legends to him.
From the time he arrived in Mexico for his first World Golf Championship, he has been hitting balls on the range next to Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, and on Saturday he worked up the courage to introduce himself to Phil Mickelson on the putting green.
“It just feels like there’s a TV in front of me, and I’m actually watching it through a TV,” Sharma said.
Even more surreal? He’s beating them.
The 21-year-old from India held his nerve to the end and holed a 15-foot par putt on the 18th hole at Chapultepec Golf Club for a 2-under 69, giving him a two-shot lead going into the final round of the Mexico Championship.
Sharma has one round left to hold off a few of golf’s biggest names — starting with Mickelson.
Mickelson played bogey-free for a 65 and will be in the final group for the first time since the British Open two years ago. Joining them will be Tyrrell Hatton of England, who went out in 30 and finished off a 64.
“It’s been a long time since my game’s been back to this point,” Mickelson said. “I’m back playing some of my best golf again. It will start to click and get better and better as the year goes on.”
As for winning for the first time since the 2013 British Open?
“I think whether it happens tomorrow or not — very good chance it will — but if it doesn’t, it’s going to happen soon because I’m playing too well for it not to.”
At least there won’t be any need for an introduction. Sharma took care of that Saturday when he saw Mickelson on the putting green as he was about to tee off. His caddie, Gurbaaz Mann, played at Arizona State and walked over with him to meet Mickelson.
Mickelson might have heard about Sharma, the only two-time winner on the European Tour this season and the Race to Dubai leader.
He just didn’t recognize him.
“He thought we were media and he said, ‘Not right now. After the round,’” Sharma said with a smile. “Then he just realized it and said, ‘So sorry, I thought you were media.’ He said ‘Hi,’ I said, ‘Hi.’ Then he made a few putts and he came back to me and said, ‘Have a good day.’ It was nice.”
Sharma was at 13-under 200 and is one round away from capping an amazing rise.
Just three months ago, he had yet to win a tournament outside of India’s developmental circuit. He didn’t have a European Tour card. He was No. 462 in the world. A victory in the World Golf Championship would be his third title in his last eight starts, and likely put him in the top 25.
He faces quite a test, however.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello each had a 69 and were in the group at 11-under 202. Garcia has never won a World Golf Championship. Another shot back was Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world and defending champion, who managed a 68 despite playing the par 5s on the back nine in 1 over.
Sharma didn’t blink, even after a lead that reached four shots at one point was shrinking.
There was a little more emotion packed into those two short fist-pumps when his par putt dropped on the final hole. He had made bogey on No. 13 to fall into a share of the lead with Pat Perez. And while he bounced back with a birdie on the 14th, Sharma missed a 5-foot birdie chance on the 15th, misjudged the distance on his approach and made bogey on the 16th and was facing another bogey on the 18th when a gust knocked his ball into the bunker.
He gave a slight fist pump, and then another, when the par putt fell.
“Making par was very, very important,” he said.
Perez had three birdies in a four-hole stretch and momentarily tied Sharma for the lead. But he dropped a shot on the 16th, and then came up short in the water on the par-3 17th and made double bogey. He had to settle for a 68, though he still was just three shots behind, along with Brian Harman (68) and Xander Schauffele (70).
Justin Thomas also has new life after setting the course record with a 62, breaking by one the mark Jordan Spieth set last year. He was only four back. Spieth birdied three of his last four and was six shots behind.
Sharma had never seen such large crowds following him, and it’s still hard to digest seeing so many players he only knew from the middle of the night at home in Chandigarh. Mickelson at Muirfield. Rory McIlroy at Congressional. Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines. Sharma went straight to the range after McIlroy won his U.S. Open.
“Every time watching these majors, it really inspires you, especially watching it night,” he said. “Everything is quiet and you see a guy make a putt and you see that roar on TV. You can’t contain yourself. I remember when Tiger won the U.S. Open in 2008. I had an exam the next day, so I studied all day for the exam just so that I could watch him play. I remember when he made that putt to get into the playoff, I jumped on my bed and almost broke it.”
“These are the stories that inspire you.”
Now he’s a big part of this story in Mexico. Sunday is a final exam of another variety.